Urban pioneers have been making their mark in Newburgh since the 1960’s, creating the first wave of revitalizers in the city. The late Elizabeth (aka Libby) Lyon from NYC was a major figure during the 1970’s. Libby is pictured above with the handkerchief on her head as well as Regina Angelo in the center. Libby was priced out and “aggravated to death with the complications of restoring NYC properties” and found Newburgh through an advertisement in the Village Voice. She considered the derelict buildings of Montgomery Street to be the “find of the century”. Ms. Lyon could be likened to the Jane Jacobs of Newburgh. She purchased five homes (here it was seven) on Montgomery Street for $1,000 a piece to save them from urban renewal that had just leveled Water Street a few years earlier. Assistant Director of the URP, Fred Miles said the buildings were completely vandalized and the only things salvageable were the outer walls and foundations. Ms. Lyon thought otherwise and fought for years to purchase the properties even though she didn’t actually have the money to buy them! Her persistence struck a chord with city officials and they eventually made a deal. Ms. Lyon had 2 years to completely restore the buildings or sell them.
Tom Porfidio, who is sharing these photos, purchased two buildings Libby saved – 162 and 158 Montgomery. Tom said Libby was “known to confront the demolition crews that were ready to raise 158, 162 and three other 2nd Empire mansard roofs, and almost put herself in the way of the machine, thus saving the First Five Bricks as they became known.” In the early days these blocks were desolate ghost towns, a “ghetto”. Vandals were a huge problem. Tom had a German Shepherd to chase away vandals and Jim DiMaria had a rifle. Tom says of DiMaria, “Jim was one of the early restorers who used to sit on his front entrance with a rifle to ward off the locals from stealing his building materials…he was hired as the architect that designed plans for the restoration of my 158.” DiMaria also came from NYC. After Ms. Lyon started her work the new windows and doors she installed were destroyed. But as she said back in 1975, “You have to try to make a foothold somewhere.”
Tom purchased 162 Montgomery in 1980. He worked on it for three years when he purchased the house next door, #158 in 1983. When Tom purchased 158 it was a complete hollow shell as you can see in the photo above. It took him three years to finish 158 Montgomery, totaling more than six years of constant restoration work. Tom later decided to turn 158 into a bed and breakfast, The Stockbridge Ramsdell House. You can read more about Tom’s work in this THR article, Former owner of city B&B relives adventures in book and his book, Breakfast With Tom-The Stories. Tom also has a website with more information of his renovation adventures, www.tomporfidio.com.
An informative article from a September 30, 1979 Evening News quoted Ms. Lyon saying the following, “You cannot just give up on one section of a city and say the rest of the city will not be affected. The Urban Renewal Theory failed but it took people a lot of destruction of irreplaceable heritage until we looked at ourselves long enough to understand our alleged solution was so bad it could not possibly be the way to go…I did it because the bulldozing was a personal violation to me. I felt that way about the burning of Paris and the bombing of Berlin. When something beautiful is destroyed, where ever it is, everyone loses.”
Enjoy the before and after photos below. Not only is this a homage to the history of those before us, it is inspirational for the many other Newburgh homes in similar states. If someone could spearhead a movement to save 5 homes, imagine what some of us could do today on other streets such as Lander, Lutheran, and South Miller? Many mansions on Grand, Liberty and Montgomery are still in danger of being demolished. Consider the Monell Mansion or the Arno. Save a rescue me home today and create your own story!
The Stockbridge Ramsdell House as it looks today. Libby considered this home to be very attractive for the amazing views of the Hudson River visible from the rooms in the back. Looking at Newburgh’s grand homes today we might not realize the ginormous efforts it took to save these homes over 40 years ago. Can you imagine Montgomery Street without these homes? They were almost demolished along with hundreds of other buildings when urban renewal destroyed the waterfront.
Tom repairing the living room in the house.
This is the living room space. Tom said that the original pocket doors had already been removed by previous owners in order to create a kitchen on the other side. When restoring the space Tom had all chair moldings, picture moldings, baseboards, window and door casings milled from original samples. He repaired the floors using similar woods and stains and finishes.
The same living room fully restored and decorated by Tom. He was “very proud” of the work he was able to accomplish. Many generations to come will enjoy the amazing work you have done Tom. Thanks for sharing your story! Stay tuned for part II of 162 Montgomery Street.